Contrary to what the name suggests, a shoulder press can engage more than just your shoulders. Of course, it is the target muscle group and will act as the prime mover while executing the lift.
But you would not be able to perform the exercise without a contraction in your trunk and core to stabilize your body during the movement.
So, it’s safe to say that a shoulder press or an overhead press can engage several muscle groups at the same time.
But should it be activating the trapezius muscles as well? Many gym-goers feel a slight soreness in their trap muscles just after completing the OHP. To determine if this is normal, it’s important to study the role that your trap muscles play while you are performing a shoulder press.
Without further ado, let’s dive straight into it!
Does Shoulder Press Work Traps?
Yes, performing a shoulder press can engage your traps as it stabilizes your body and performs some accessory functions.
However, if you look at shoulder press exercise in isolation, it will not directly work the traps, especially if your attention is focused entirely on shoulder development.
Indirectly, however, your trapezius muscles will act as synergists or stabilizers while performing overhead presses. They are responsible for assisting the deltoids in maintaining proper shoulder positioning and stability.
When you lift the dumbbells or barbell over your head or shoulder, the trapezius muscles will start getting engaged, working to support and control the movement and rotation in the shoulder blades, also known as the scapulae.
Lifters should note, however, that trapezius muscles only serve as a secondary muscle group and are not the primary target of the shoulder press exercise and its variations. So, if your primary aim is to build your shoulder muscles, you should focus on isolating the target muscle group by maintaining proper form and using the right technique.
If you want to build your traps, you should try out other exercises that engage those muscles directly, like shrugs or upright rows.
If you have been working hard to get those round, bulky shoulders, including an overhead press in your workout regimen will definitely help.
The compound movement primarily targets the deltoid muscles. These are mainly responsible for the roundedness of your shoulders. However, there are some secondary muscle groups that are engaged during the movement as well.
So, what are the different muscles that are activated during a simple military press (or any other similar variation like a dumbbell shoulder press)?
Let’s find out.
These muscles work together to provide the body with enough stability and power to perform a motion as complicated as an overhead press.
What’s Its Function?
In the previous section, we learned that shoulder presses engage other active muscle groups like traps and triceps as well. But what function do these secondary muscles perform when you are completing a shoulder press?
To give yourself a better perspective, try thinking about it like a physics problem. When you are doing a shoulder press, different muscle groups have different roles:-
- Lower back: Prevent you from tipping backward.
- Ab muscles: Prevent you from tipping forward.
- Oblique muscles: Prevent you from falling sideways.
- Tricep muscles: Prevent you from bending your elbows.
- Trapezius muscles: Prevent you from sagging your shoulders.
- Shoulder muscles: Prevent your arms from falling to the sides.
If you think of it this way, a compound movement is actively engaging most of the primary muscle groups in your body. But some play a larger role than others.
Here are the most important muscles targeted during a shoulder press, along with their respective functions and roles during OHP:-
- Deltoids: The deltoid muscles are located at the top of your shoulders. They are the primary movers during an overhead press and have one main goal – to raise the arm overhead while exercising. As such, it is the primary target during exercises like OHP.
- Triceps Brachii: The triceps are the large, three-headed muscles that run on the back side of the upper portion of your arms. The main function of the muscles in your tricep is to assist you in elbow extension while you are performing the pressing movements.
- Trapezius: Finally, we have the traps. These also serve the function of a secondary muscle group that assists the body in performing an OHP. The traps help your body rotate your shoulder blades when you push your arms overhead while performing a shoulder press. So, there is some amount of activation of this muscle group.
Is it Normal to Have Sore Traps After a Shoulder Press?
We learned that shoulder presses actively engage the trapezius muscles during the end-range of the movement. In such a case, it should be normal for anyone to have sore traps a day after hitting the gym, right?
However, that is not the case.
It is not entirely normal to have sore traps after performing shoulder presses because they only serve as a secondary muscle group for stabilizing your body during the movement.
The bulk of the activation is taken up by the deltoids, which are the primary movers in a shoulder press. If you are straining trapezius muscles hard enough during shoulder presses for them to feel sore afterwards, there might be some mistake on your end, whether it is improper form, technique, or something else.
Why is my Traps Sore After Shoulder Press?
Here are some primary reasons why your traps might be sore after performing overhead presses:
You are a Beginner
If you have just started working out, it’s not uncommon to have soreness in all major and minor muscle groups, irrespective of the exercises you perform.
That’s because a lot of your muscles are activated during compound movements. So, all of them are naturally activated at some point.
Since beginners don’t require a lot of stimulation for muscle growth, even minor activation in secondary muscle groups can cause soreness.
Using Improper Form and Technique
If you are not executing the overhead press exercise with proper form and technique, it might lead to excessive involvement and activation of the trapezius muscles.
For example, if you are shrugging the shoulders or allowing them to elevate abnormally during the movement, it’ll place more strain/stress on the traps.
As such, it’s important to maintain proper scapular positioning and focus on isolating the deltoids as much as you can.
Underdeveloped Shoulder Muscles
Sometimes, the primary mover muscles in your body (like deltoids in the case of shoulder presses) might be too weak to perform the exercise.
In such a case, the body compensates by placing excessive stress on secondary muscle groups to complete the movement.
So, if your shoulder muscles are underdeveloped, your traps will be activated at a greater level to compensate.
Lifting Excessively Heavy Weights
Lifting a heavier weight than your body can handle can lead to improper form, flawed technique, and over-utilization of secondary muscle groups.
So, you should try lifting lighter weights until you feel that the bulk of the work is done by the deltoids alone.
Poor Mind-Muscle Connection
A poor mind-muscle connection may influence the outcome of your shoulder presses in two ways.
First, you might not be able to activate the intended muscle group (deltoids). Second, poor mind-muscle connections may result in inefficient and improper movement patterns.
That will mess up your form and technique and may place excessive strain on your traps, leading to greater activation and inevitable soreness.
Upper Trap Dominance
Upper trap dominance is the muscle imbalance wherein the upper traps become overactive or dominant while the other muscle groups remain underactive in certain movements like shoulder presses.
The imbalance can have dire consequences and alter the biomechanics and function of the shoulder girdle. If you have an upper trap dominance, your body will put more stress on your traps during shoulder presses, leading to inefficient shoulder muscle development.
One way to curb this problem is to reduce the number of exercises you perform for direct trap activation.
Having stiff muscles, particularly in the shoulder and upper back region, will likely alter the mechanics of the shoulder press exercise and lead to increased activation of the trapezius muscles.
Moreover, stiff muscles can also hinder your range of motion and restrict your deltoids from engaging completely while working out. This will result in your body using secondary muscles like traps as compensation, resulting in overactive trapezius muscles.
There’s a reason why all fitness coaches recommend lifting with a controlled tempo. That’s because fast movements often result in improper form and technique, as individuals would be using momentum for lifting heavy weights instead of relying on targeted muscles.
Moreover, if you are lifting the weights too fast, your deltoids might not be able to produce enough force in the short duration to complete the movement on their own. In such a case, they would need assistance from secondary muscles like traps.
How Can I Avoid Straining My Traps When Doing Shoulder Press?
If you find that you are straining your traps a lot during shoulder presses, it means that you are not isolating the deltoids properly.
Here’s how you can solve this problem:-
Use a Controlled Tempo
One way to really work the delts and reduce the role of secondary muscles while performing shoulder presses is to garner strict control over your body throughout the movement.
Make sure that you control the tempo and try to avoid any kind of jerky or fast movements, as they may lead to unnecessary trap activation.
Applying this technique might also help you establish a powerful mind-muscle connection, which is important for activating only the targeted muscle groups while performing an exercise.
For beginners, one fool-proof way of mastering your tempo is to apply the 3-0-2-0 technique. That basically divides the entire movement into 4 parts – eccentric, pause, concentric, and pause.
This means that you should lower the weight from the fully extended position (arms overhead) down to the starting position (shoulder level) in 3 seconds. The 0 implies that there is no pause at the end range of the motion. As such, you should immediately move your arms to the extended position and take 2 seconds to do so. Finally, the last 0 implies there is no pause at that point too, and you should continue to the set in the same tempo.
This is a standard tempo template that you can use to maximize your mind-muscle connection. As it improves, you can adjust the tempo of your movement accordingly on the basis of whatever feels best for your delts.
Prioritise Form and Technique
For maximum efficiency, make sure that you maintain proper form throughout the exercise.
Pay attention to close details – keep your shoulders down by avoiding shrugging or elevation. This will help in minimizing trap activation and ensures that delts are engaged in isolation.
Also, make sure that you keep your scapula down and retract to make sure that the trap muscles need not be engaged at all.
If you have been struggling with maintaining the right form, you are likely lifting weights that are too heavy for you.
This will result in overactive trap muscles as they will be activated to provide your deltoids with some much-needed support to lift the heavy weights.
The human body takes its time in training itself to lift more. As such, you should know your limits and move forward slowly.
Warm Up Before Workouts
Having stiff and tight muscles can also lead to overactive traps during compound exercises like shoulder presses.
As such, you should always dedicate some time to warming up your entire body before you move to the core part of your workout routine.
Stiffness may limit the range of motion in your body, serve as a symptom of muscle imbalance, and also lead to a lack of mobility, all of which can exert increased stress on traps while performing overhead presses.
Use the Right Equipment
The tools that you work with can largely determine the success of your workouts. For example, if you are using a barbell for performing shoulder-based exercises, you won’t face any issues or inconsistencies in your movement.
However, the weight plates you put on the barbell and the dumbbells you use may cause such complications as the weight might differ due to wear and tear. In such a case, the form and technique will get disturbed, and secondary muscles will get activated to compensate for the incorrect movement.
Similarly, it’s also important to ensure that you have proper back support if you are doing seated shoulder presses. Make sure that the angle of the backrest is appropriate and comfortable for the exercise of your choosing.
Moreover, you can also opt to use the shoulder press machine if you are struggling to maintain good form. You can slowly move on to the dumbbells once you are more accustomed to the exercise and the movement patterns.
All of these considerations will result in the lifter using perfect form and technique and limiting the role of traps in performing shoulder presses.
Traps undoubtedly play a huge role in facilitating shoulder press movements. However, they should only be looked at as stabilizer muscles to assist your body in completing overhead presses.
If your main goal is shoulder muscle development, you should focus completely on targeting your deltoids and minimizing the work done by the trapezius muscles during shoulder press workouts.